Closure of estates among options floated but no decision yet on sugar industry

The Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo) has recommended the closure of sugar estates in regions 4 and 6 and the possible sale of at least one estate to a private investor, according to PPP General Secretary Clement Rohee, who said the opposition remains opposed to any plans to close, sell or privatise any estates.

The recommendations were shared at a meeting held between the APNU+AFC government and stakeholders, including the opposition and workers’ unions, last Saturday to determine a way forward for the beleaguered sugar industry.

GuySuCo had started the last year with the surprise announcement of the closure of the Wales estate but no concrete decisions have followed on the future of the industry. Last November, a team from GuySuCo presented to Cabinet an update on the state of the sugar industry as well as the available options for the future. After this presentation, Minister of State Joseph Harmon announced at a press briefing that it was clear that that some decisions would have to be made about GuySuCo before the end of December and therefore a sub-committee, including Minister of Agriculture Noel Holder, Minister of Finance Winston Jordan, Minister of Natural Resources Raphael Trotman and himself, had been established to examine the options presented by the corporation.

This sub-committee was expected to have crafted Cabinet’s approach to the issue within two weeks of the presentation after which the opposition and the National Assembly and other stakeholders, including the sugar workers and their families would be engaged in developing a final position. This timeline was not adhered to and consultation between the government, the parliamentary opposition and the sugar unions only occurred on the last day of December.

However, the consultation held on Saturday yielded no results other than a commitment to continue consultation at some point in the near future, while the industry remains in limbo. The government, through a press statement issued by the Ministry of Presidency, subsequently described the meeting as satisfactory, while Rohee told Stabroek News that it was below expectations.

“We were unable to fully participate since several pieces of documentation we requested were not provided beforehand,” Rohee said. He noted that government has since provided the stakeholders with documentation, including the recommendations from GuySuCo but claims the information is incomplete.

“We wanted anything they had. We thought they would have documents showing how they arrived at certain decisions and recommendations but what we received seems to be excerpts from documents showing recommendations from GuySuCo to the Cabinet on the way forward. It truly doesn’t appear that we have been provided these documents in their entirety,” he stressed.

Despite this, Rohee said, the opposition has committed to returning to the consultation table after the documents have been carefully studied, which should take less than a month.

“We haven’t committed to a timeline but I don’t think it will take more than a month. It will probably take less than that,” he explained before stating that his party maintains its general policy of opposing any plans to close, sell or privatise any sugar estates.  He noted that GuySuCo has presented a gamut of recommendations, including the closure of estates on the East Coast and in Berbice.

“We were even told that there is an offer being made to purchase one of the estates, which we think should not be entertained right now. It should be a case of nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. You can’t be having national consultations at the same time a private investor is conducting a feasibility study,” Rohee maintained.

Chairman of the GuySuCo Board Dr Clive Thomas had told Stabroek News last November that there had been dialogue with potential buyers on the Skeldon estate in Berbice and approval from the government was being awaited to continue the discussions. The reason for moving in that direction, he said, was because of the estate’s deplorable state and the expenses it is incurring.

The Guyana Agricultural and General Workers’ Union (GAWU) had previously warned against the possible sale of Skeldon estate, while arguing that it would have negative repercussions for the sugar industry and the country as a whole. “At this time, we emphasise our strong disagreement with the position mooted and strongly urge the Government and GuySuCo to desist from such a course and instead to heed the credible and sincere views of the many Guyanese who have grave difficulties to support the selling out of the estate,” GAWU had said in a statement, where it also noted that such a move would jeopardise the employment of workers and the welfare of communities linked to the estate.

Although Thomas had indicated that the proposal came from the GuySuCo board, GAWU noted that its representative on the board was not aware of such a proposal being raised at recent meetings nor had he been requested to express his view on the reported options. “Apparently, the Board’s name is being used to illustrate that consultation is taking place and a democratic procedure is followed. It also raises the question whether other Board members are aware of what is being proposed in their name. Most certainly, the workers of Skeldon and their unions are left in the dark,” it said.

Minister of Agriculture Holder told a news conference last week that GuySuCo does not see a way to make the Skeldon estate profitable.

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